Over the past couple weeks, county election officials around the state have fielded numerous form emails from Montanans requesting that their voter status be changed from inactive to active. Save for the names, addresses and contact info, the emails are virtually identical, and all hail from the same domain: votedaines.com.
According to its disclaimer, the site is paid for by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’ reelection campaign. And the campaign spent a good chunk of late August pushing the link via social media and text messages.
The gist from the site’s language is that if visiting voters want to ensure they get a mail ballot in the coming general election, they should enter their personal information in a series of boxes.
From there, votedaines.com will automatically generate an email and send it to the appropriate county election office.
“As Montana counties move towards mail-in voting, only active voters will receive ballots automatically,” reads one social media post linking to the site. “Right now, you may NOT receive a ballot. Update your status immediately.”
However, visitors to the website’s survey page only get the opportunity to enter that information if they answer a question first: “Do You Support President Trump?”
If the user selects “yes,” they’re redirected to the site’s voter status update form.
If the user selects “no,” or “undecided,” they get a simple message thanking them for their feedback and stating that their response “has been recorded.”
“Our campaign is looking to identify our supporters and turn them out to vote — this is what campaigns do,” Daines campaign spokeswoman Julia Doyle said in an email.
When Yellowstone County Election Administrator Bret Rutherford comes across one of these website-generated messages in his inbox, his response is always the same. He looks up the specific voter in the voter database, then contacts them with one of several canned emails of his own. Sometimes the voter is already listed as active, in which case Rutherford’s reply says they’re good to go. Sometimes their address doesn’t match his records, or they aren’t registered at all, prompting Rutherford to direct them to the official form they have to fill out and submit to make the necessary changes.
“I’ve only had a handful of people actually reply to me, so my fear is that people think by submitting that, it’s all they need to do. Which is not the case,” Rutherford said.
Missoula County Election Administrator Bradley Seaman confirmed that he, too, has received a few votedaines.com emails since Sept. 1.
The website’s approach bears a striking resemblance to a brand of third-party mailer that’s become common in federal elections. In 2018, one mailer containing absentee ballot forms distributed by the New American Jobs Fund, a union- and conservation-affiliated super PAC, caused confusion when some of the 90,000 recipients statewide realized they were already registered absentee. Another 2018 mailer from the Republican National Committee contained incorrect information, necessitating follow-up calls and mailers correcting the mistake, as well as a public apology by the RNC.
In August, county election officials in Montana cited another rash of voter confusion stemming from mailers sent by a group called The Patriots Foundation. The mailers in that case included an absentee ballot form and language encouraging recipients that voting absentee is “fast, easy and safe!” Nothing about the mailers was illegal. However, Gallatin County Election Manager Casey Hayes did respond with a press release saying his office had been inundated with calls, all of them from mailer recipients who were already set to get absentee ballots in the mail.
Hayes said the votedaines.com website is “the new electronic version of that analogue mailer.”
“I think the votedaines.com stuff was being sent to voters through text, so it’s just another avenue of approach for outside organizations to interact with these voters, Hayes said.
In light of the impacts the coronavirus pandemic is having on the 2020 general election — more than two-thirds of the counties in the state have opted to conduct the Nov. 3 election by mail — election officials and voter rights advocates alike believe it’s more critical than ever for voters to have accurate information. That includes knowing whether the forms they’re filling out are the right ones.
“Misleading information, even if well-intentioned, can discourage prospective voters to the point they stop trying,” said Nancy Leifer, president of the League of Women Voters Montana. “Montana law requires voter registration, absentee ballot requests and voting to be done on paper with proper signatures and turned in to your county election office. While this seems old-fashioned, this safeguards our elections against hacking and cyber-attacks. If you see information indicating you can do any of these things online or in any other way, don’t waste your time on them.”
Hayes said the best way for voters to ensure that they’re registering to vote or updating their voter information the right way is to simply contact their county elections office and ask. The “My Voter Page” on the Montana Secretary of State’s website is another reliable resource, as is any official correspondence from local election officials, which typically aren’t glossy, colorful mailers but rather envelopes bearing the offices’ official seal.
For the most part, Hayes doesn’t take much issue with third-party mailers, provided they don’t contain incorrect information. They often create a “touchpoint” between his office and voters, an opportunity for people to reach out to him with questions and get the right information, he said. Hayes’ only concern with websites like the votedaines.com site would be if voters disregard or don’t see the subsequent follow-ups from his office.
“Our concern is that some folks have used this website thinking that that’s the panacea, that that’s what’s going to fix their problem,” Hayes said. “We’re just hopeful that they’re looking into their emails to see our responses that say, ‘Here’s the next step.’ But all in all, any organization that’s going to push voters our way in order to create a more accurate address list and list of voters, we’re going to accept that and we’re going to welcome that, even if it means we’re going to have to do a little more legwork on our side.”
As for the site’s survey directing only avowed Trump supporters to update their voter status? Hayes and Seaman declined to comment. Rutherford, though, said he wasn’t a fan.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “I wish everybody was treated uniformly.”
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Freelance writer Alex Sakariassen, a former staff reporter for the Choteau Acantha, has spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, Sakariassen splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact him by email at email@example.com.